Ok so I've been browsing around on the internet and looking at all sorts of games and roleplaying related stuff. I now have a burning quest to point out something to people.
I caution now that there are spoilers to Iron Man 1, Coraline, Emperor's New Groove and Paranormal Activity
Outline of a good story.
It's a very basic formula but any good story revolves around "Character gets into trouble, character gets out of trouble."
Here's some examples:
Iron Man: Tony Stark gets screwed over by terrorists and has to build awesome things to get himself out.
Coraline: Little girl is kidnapped by evil-faerie-witch-woman-thing and must escape and free her parents and other kids.
Emperors New Groove: Kuzco is turned into a llama and must try become un-llama-ed.
Paranormal Activity: Random Couple is haunted by a thing and try get rid of it. (Eventually when the guy stops being a tard.)
So that's the premise of the movie. Let's look at something else critical about the characters at the start of the film.
Iron Man: Tony Stark is clever, rich man who wants to do human kind a service.
Coraline: Coraline is a bored kid who is trying to live a normal life and get attention from her parents.
Emperor's New Groove: Kuzco is self absorbed but ultimately useless and wants to build a pool.
Paranormal Activity: The very normal couple ultimately want to have a normal life.
Notice how they all actually want to do something.
Now let's take a look at the odds they face.
Iron Man: Great odds are against Tony as he relies on an alternate power source, that is depleting, to live while having to fight someone armed with every weapon he made.
Coraline: Evil-faerie-witch-woman-thing has trapped Coraline in another world and won't let her go.
Emperor's New Groove: Evil advisor Izma has placed a great distance full of scary and dangerous jungle between her and Kuzco.
Paranormal Activity: Evil haunty thing is seriously badass and dangerous. Completely invisible and intangible.
Notice here how overpowering the bad things are compared to the characters.
And finally lets look at how they get out of the trouble.
Iron Man: Using quick wit and some luck Tony just manages to build himself back up to power and kick some serious arse.
Coraline: Using quick wit, help from others and some luck Coraline manages to out smart the thingy woman and escape.
Emperor's New Groove: With the help of a new friend and some luck Kuzco manages to cross the jungle, get the antillama and stop Izma.
Paranormal Activity: Using not much wit, no help from others and remarkably poor luck the characters die.
Notice how when they did this you should be on the edge of your seat thinking "Holy crapola! Are they gonna make it?"
Now. When I'm trying to run a serious and immersive game there are two types of player that get to me.
1) I start the game as amazingly powerful and can do pretty much anything. And I'm a dark tortured soul.
2) I have a (wand/hat/disease/genital) that makes (rainbows/gravy/pidgeons/monkeys)!!! LOL!
The problems with these is that with option 1 you don't get that suspense with the story, wondering if the character will make it to the end. Instead of letting the story prove that they can do amazing things while being relatively normal we have... well... Imagine if Tony Stark was a telepath with telekinesis and could melt entire armies with his mind. Or if Kuzco could teleport and kill people by looking at them. It defeats the formula and thus makes a bad story. (And very short.) If the game master has fooled themself into thinking that these kinds of characters are good then the bad guys have to be even more overpowered and thus ruin any sense of connection one would feel with any of the characters because instead of "My character is a tired mechanic trying to pay off the house to shelter his girlfriend.", whom a lot of us can relate to to some degree, we have "My character is a walking apocalypse who likes entrails." who's mind we battle to get into and many of us don't care if he's happy or sad or dead.
If we side with option 2 you may be able to overcome the odds, despite being useless, but more often than not it's an excuse to "Fart on the lich king." Here the GM will either let the lich kill you because that's what would happen but then you complain and whine, or he takes pity on you, lets you survive and becomes annoyed by your character ruining the suspense that is supposed to build because you now have pity and stupidity protecting you from the big bad.
So what guidlines make a good character?
Start off with a normal person. Sure it might not be cool but it's someone you can relate to. More importantly, other people can relate to. A good character has the audience worried about them. Pick bits and pieces of people you know and stitch them together. Make them like dogs, be scared of thunder, like raspberries, own a collection of coins. (Maybe not even valuable ones) The trick is they must not be TEH AWESUMZORZ!!! LULULUL! or dark and brooding unstoppable forces. Next is give them motivation. Something a normal person would have. Living a normal life and paying the bills is always a great start. Improve on them and make them more memorable by being "That guy who's saving up to go to college." or "That chick who is trying to get her divorce finalised." If your character has no reason to get up in the morning why should they be up at all when you start playing them? Sure the GM will throw a story your way but your character hasn't been sitting at home their whole life waiting for this story. Frodo actually had friends and family and daily chores to do before he was sent to Mordor to nearly die. Also, let the story make you awesome. If you want to become a powerful and influential business man, don't start off like that. If you want to become a demon lord and rule over a circle of hell, let your character get that gole as the game progresses. No normal shop assistant actually aspires to that without realising that there's a chance and realising that chance is a pretty amazing thing. Worth roleplaying actually. What's more interesting? A powerful CEO with government ties that can organise anything or someone trying to become that CEO? Finally, being different is only special if you're the only different one. A party of a fire-elemental, a psychic elf ranger and a ogre necromancer is special as a group but no individual is special because they're all equally exotic. If you stuck a human farmer in there he/she would then be the special one because of how normal they are.
So to wrap I give you this summary.
Don't start with an awesome character. Develope an awesome character.
- The Vagaries of Character